Alpine skiing -- more than just going downhill

To many viewers of the alpine skiing events at the upcoming Nagano Olympics, the formula for winning is simple -- get to the bottom of the hill faster than anyone else.

But, to those who truly appreciate the ''inner game'' of the sport, each of alpine skiing's four events presents a different set of challenges -- physical and mental -- that must be overcome to ensure success on the piste.

These inner factors may also explain why Japan's top skiers have traditionally had their biggest successes in the slalom, while the lone berth left vacant by the Ski Association of Japan (SAJ) when it named its Olympic team for Nagano was in the women's downhill.

The slalom and giant slalom are generally referred to as the ''technical events,'' with slalom requiring the racer to be quick, aggressive, agile and, most of all, focused to negotiate a complicated layout of 60-odd poles over a 40- to 60-second run.

From Chiharu Igaya, Olympic silver medalist in the slalom in 1956, to Japan's latest alpine hope Kiminobu Kimura, a fourth-place finisher in last year's World Cup event in Shiga Kogen, Japanese skiers have traditionally been stronger in the technical disciplines.

Some skiing commentators suggest that the Japanese develop the skills they need to be slalom racers because they are perfectionists who work endlessly to polish their technique.

Foreign coaches who have worked with Japanese skiers have also remarked that the athletes are disciplined and conscientious in their training.

After another fourth-place finish by Kimura in a World Cup event in Kranjska Gora, Slovenia, early this year, Japanese head coach Toshimasa Furukawa said ''Only skiers with technique produced good results in that race. Kimura was one of those skiers.''

The giant slalom is a longer technical event, with the distance between poles roughly twice that of the slalom, demanding both good technique and dynamic strength over the roughly 1 minute to 1 minute, 20 seconds it takes to finish the course.

Success in the giant slalom often goes to the skier with the most perfect overall ability -- like Switzerland's Michael Von Gruenigen, who has been hailed by fellow World Cup skiers as the ''textbook'' on skiing technique.

Of course, there is also Italy's Alberto Tomba. Tomba, who has been called the best technical skier alive, will attempt through his combination of superb skill and athleticism to become a three-time Olympic gold medalist in the giant slalom in Nagano.

The super G -- or super giant slalom -- and the downhill are the ''speed disciplines'' which require skiers to concentrate more on the line taken through the gates.

They require skiers to stay in a ''tuck'' position, a low, crouching stance to decrease air resistance and allow the skier to stay as low to the ground as possible even through the large jumps.

Downhillers, such as Hermann Maier, are not necessarily large physically. In fact, the current World Cup downhill leader did not make the Austrian team the first time around because he was too small.

Recently, however, Maier has come up big, with seven World Cup wins this season, including five in a row, and opponents and teammates, such as Andreas Schifferer, are saying that Maier is skiing ''on another planet.''

The physical demands of trying to stay in a tuck for nearly 2 minutes of downhill test both strength and endurance and Maier has attributed his success this season to good physical condition.

One of the arguments made by the International Ski Federation (FIS) during its five-year impasse with Olympic organizers over the start of the Nagano downhill was that it was too short to be an Olympic-class challenge.

Test runs on the original downhill course on the Happo-one piste in Hakuba were completed in about 1:30, while FIS insisted that the downhill time should ideally be around 1:45 to 2 minutes.

With downhill racers reaching speeds of up to 130 kilometers per hour, many would agree that their event requires an element of courage or craziness and this is perhaps why it is considered alpine skiing's premier event.

Ski analysts have said that Japanese skiers rarely have the chance to get adequate downhill training on Japan's rather short and over-crowded slopes.

But foreign coaches in Japan say that it is more that the skiers lack the sheer unadulterated love and joy of skiing at the limits that makes a downhiller passionate about this event and that Japanese coaches keep too tight a rein on their charges to allow this attitude to develop.

While the downhill has been part of Alpine skiing since it began, the super G, the second fastest discipline, was introduced only in the 1980's.

Unlike the downhill, however, the super G has no practice runs so a skier must judge correctly, memorize precisely and reproduce, at 100 kph, the line they have chosen to take during their preliminary inspection of the course.

So, while alpine skiing may still be a matter of getting to the bottom of the hill first, the physical and emotional factors make each event unique.

And, in an Olympic year, with the competition reduced to one all-important day, add one more element: luck.

(January 18, 1998)